I know we're setting a dangerous precedent here by posting twice within a few days, but hey, we've got a few things to say and we're still over two months behind at this point...so let's get to it!
After our second stint in Santiago (Stgo for short, which I kept mistaking for a shorthand for a saint named "Go", which I thought was odd...anyways), we bounced out of country with much excitement, since it had already been two months in the just one country. Plus, we were pretty much dead tired of eating hot dogs and drinking carmenere. The road into Argentina from Santiago pretty much goes straight to Mendoza, well known by wine lovers as the home of Malbec and vineyards galore. The road to get there...well yeah, a bit twisty. Over 25 hairpin turns and up a mountain we went, but good lord was the drive beautiful. One of the most scenic drives I've ever done, the snow capped mountains, blue bird weather, etc...surreal. We even saw a snow fox right at the top of the pass.
Our first border crossing with Masi was pretty official, since this was a really popular tourist route. Well actually, it was kind of odd, in that it was the only border in the entire world that I've crossed where you could drive straight past it and NO ONE stops you...for like another 20km. We misunderstood where we were supposed to pull over, so I suggested just to keep driving until someone turned us around, which eventually happened. The police officer actually laughed at us and gave us directions back to the border, which struck me as 1) funny that I could drive right by it, and 2) super permeable and a good note for when we decide to start our drug smuggling biz. We spotted a lime green argentinian kombi driving on the way back and had a very brief chat with them- always great to see other crazy kombi peeps. Once at the actual huge border crossing (that one could totally drive right by, again), we queued and waited our turn to get stamped out, stamped in (the Chilean and Argentinian agents literally sit right next to each other, so the no man's land is like 4 inches...nice), and get Masi thoroughly searched. Couple funny things about the customs agents were that they thought Shan1 and I are brother/sister because we have the same last name (not a custom to take your husband's name in SA) and they gave us sorrowful look when we explained we only have ONE last name. "Solemente uno??", asked the customs with a 'poor poor boy' look on his face. Sorry bros, we keep the overhead to a minimum in the states, good luck with your stupid family history Hernan Bustamente Pedro Alejandro Gonzalez de los Andes.
I digress. Oh, Masi checked out clean too, although they didn't seem too concerned about a thorough check and just asked a few questions about our bags and their contents. Good-two-shoes Shan1 voluntarily told them we have dried fruits and nuts (NOT THE NUTS SHAN1, DEAR GOD) which they then felt as they must confiscate since we offered 'em up...and promptly threw out our entire stash. I still have not recovered from this act of sabotage. Once the nuts were dispatched, we got waved through, and were on our way to Mendoza.
Beautiful mountain passes and windy valleys let way to serene plains and massive vineyards after several hours, and although fuel was running low we pushed Masi into Mendoza on fumes alone. We found a camping spot on the outskirts of town using our trusty iOverlander app (can we get them to sponsor us?), and pulled in around dusk. The great thing about iOverlander and other user generated content apps that pull from wise crowds is that we're all using and contributing in much the same way, so you often find like minds that go to the same place.
"Yeah, totes McGotes"
That's how that little ditty goes, and it provides the modicum of comfort, the germ of friendship that you need on the road to just start getting to know other rad people. Well that, and wine. Wine is also good.
Camping spot was pretty decent, if a little out of the way in relation to Mendoza central, but on our first walk out to try and change money (blurb on that whole thing to follow) we passed by another couple in a yellow-ish '83 Vanagon Westy, that looked a bit more dialed-in than us...not that we're out of sorts, but some peeps just have the 'GOT THIS' look that time on the road eventually provides you. We popped by their site to say hello, and thus began our friendship with Brendan (Aussie) and Bridget (South African). Besides being great kombi folks driving around an '83 westy with throwback California blue plates, they're similar age, attitudes, liked cooking, telling stories, and hanging out being rad folks. We got along super well immediately, and although we were months from starting our trip and they were months from ending theirs (they were on the road for 15 months already at that time and still had 3-4 more months), we compared notes and saw we were all generally heading in similar directions. Although I KNOW THEY ARE READING THIS, I'd still say they're genuine bright lights in this world, and it was our privilege to travel alongside them for so long- no duh, they pop back up again later on down the road.
Anywho, Mendoza is a chill little city, friendly people, lots of great cafes, restaurants, and bars. We walked around quite a bit, checked out their casino (I refuse to play robot roulette, stay out my vices you dirty machines for this man makes his own luck), got Shan1 her ice cream fix, and had some very decent food in town. We also needed to change money, which brings us to this interesting, but now moot, topic of the Argentinian Blue Rate or Why Not to Fix Your Dumb Currency.
So, for those not in the know...Argentina is pretty bad with money and stuff. Just google 'argentina politcal corruption' or 'argentina corruption' or I guess 'Argentina'...whatever, they're real good at being bad and also bankrupting their country. For that reason, the central bank eggheads decided to take their currency off the int'l freemarket and fix it to what they think it should be...which is about 60% more than what literally everyone thinks it should be. Thus, the Blue Rate, which is the black market rate, which is pretty confusing. Anyways, Argentina is your cousin that gambles and is also colorblind and thus doesn't know blue from black. Literally everyone in the country buys and sells knowing the blue rate (example: weird how many things add up to $2 USD, if you convert using the blue rate), and money changers take over entire streets of Buenos Aires in the open despite the supposed illegality. Although there exist restrictions on how many USD you can keep in your bank account, since the US Dollar is king, AND you cannot take out USD from any ATM in the entire country, this does not stop anyone from finding alternate routes. One that we took was ferrying to Uruguay for the day and getting dollars from ATMs there to exchange for 60% higher back in Argentina. Roundabout way of saying, it's kind of a hassle, and paying in cash with blue rate exchange saves you a ton of money. To make it real for all the liberal arts majors...say your dad donated $100 USD to your kickstarter for your one-man show, the Argentinian government would give you around 950 pesos while some dude yelling "CAMBIO CAMBIO CAMBIO" on the street would give you 1,600 pesos, straight up. Yes, that example was spot on, I KNOW you guys.
Anyways, this forces one into changing money at the same shady, flickering halogen tube light deli place where you are buying box wine and firewood. Actually, that dude was pretty nice, and gave us a good rate. Why is this all moot now, and was once a huge friggin hassle for us? Argentina had general elections whilst we were there and elected a new president who decided, against tradition, to float their currency and get back into the global market. Newspapers would report this decreased the value of their money greatly overnight, but no one was really trading at bank rates except for banks- so it's a non-issue really and everyone can go back to doing just a little less math (breathe easy liberal arts guys). Interesting times indeed, and also means that when you do change money, you change a butt load of USD 100s to get leverage and better blue rates and then subsequently leave with an enviable gangsta roll of pesos. Sidenote: Argentina please get with it and make a denomination higher than 100 pesos, for realsies.
We wiled away a few days at our camp site, exploring the city, chatting with our new couple friends in the evening and planning out next steps. We decided to all leave the site together, go into neighboring Maipu, rent bikes, ride to vineyards, eat empenadas, and generally be like four people on a billboard for Newport cigarettes. A magical day ensued, and rather than describing how awesome it was, I'll save it and just say that it's an absolute must if you're in the area. We had a blast, and don't let anyone ever tell you riding a bike becomes less fun after four glasses of wine. We camped out at out-of-season kids/family park (?) that was strangely abandoned or not well run at all at least and got to cooking a bomb handmade pizza meal (all Brendan, the doughmaster). Some dudes eventually showed up to tell we weren't safe in our current location in the quasi-abandoned kids park and we should move closer to the entrance where the annoying lights and barking dogs are. K.
Next day we all headed in the direction of some great thermal pools in Puritama, which apparently is a huge Argentinian destination even for a Tuesday afternoon. We chilled together, talked lives, and marveled at the swimwear in this part of the world- lots of 'hungry bums' as Brendan put it. After all afternoon in the pools, and sitting in the shadows on mountains with condors flying overhead, we all took off to look for a camping spot for the night. We located a great spot on a cliff's edge, cooked up some great tacos together, listened to music, and talked into the night. Before parting company in the morning we exchanged podcast tips (prospective travelers: podcasts are your friend!), made cursory plans to meet up once again (we were going to Buenos Aires to pick up some friends), and took the necessary pictures together to make it all real and memorial. Good times, great oldies.
NEXT: we head to Buenos Aires, pay our first bribe, find a welshman and an Brisbanian, go to a Pearl Jam show (1995 called, YES I KNOW), and make our way to Uruguay (better of the two 'Guays). Stay tuned lovely people!